Power, plots & passion in the compelling, intimate & deftly performed Caesar

Kevin Kashani as Marc Antony and Melanie Leon as Julius Caesar in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

 

Wolf Manor Theatre Collective continues its 2016-17 season of startling, up close and personal theatre with its production of William Shakespeare’s Caesar, directed by Dylan Brenton and opening last night to a packed house in Kensington Hall.

Triumphant Caesar (Melanie Leon) is out of control and turned tyrant, while still managing to maintain support among everyday Romans, who want to crown her as Emperor. Her friend Brutus (Megan Miles) is deeply concerned about the impact her rule could have on Rome, while Cassius (Maddalena Vallecchi Williams) goes one step further and hatches a plan to take Caesar out of the equation. Cognizant of her friend Brutus’s popularity, Cassius recruits Brutus, as well as Casca (Felix Beauchamp) and others, to her cause: assassinate Caesar.

Forewarned by a soothsayer of dark portents on the Ides of March, Caesar is reluctant to make her regular trip to the Senate—and wife Calpurnia (Beauchamp) implores her to stay at home. However, her pride and vanity are stroked by one of the conspirators (Kevin Kashani) and she ventures out despite all warnings. And despite Cassius’s warnings to Brutus about Caesar’s favourite Marc Antony (Kashani), Brutus refuses to shed his blood and even allows him to speak at Caesar’s funeral.

After Caesar is killed, Brutus speaks before her fellow Romans to quell mounting fear, confusion and anger—and they are satisfied. That is, until Antony gives that famous speech at Caesar’s funeral and turns the tide of public opinion, sparking a war—with Antony and Caesar’s son Octavius (Beauchamp) on one side and Brutus, Cassius and their supporters on the other. When all appears lost, both Brutus and Cassius take their own lives, with Brutus’s reputation for pure intentions throughout this endeavour remaining intact.

For those of you who’ve seen earlier Wolf Manor productions, the gender fluid casting will be nothing new. Casting female actors in male roles and vice versa provides interesting new takes on familiar characters—and serves as a reminder that women are just as capable of pride, violence and power brokering; and men of tenderness, caution and introspection. The intimate, in the round staging gives a Coliseum feel to the set; we’re witnesses to these events, but we’re also the citizens of Rome. And the running image of the sands of time—pouring out of letters, wine bottles and even Caesar’s blood—hearkening to a sense of legacy and that, whether emperor or everyman, we are all bound for dust.

Brenton has an especially strong and compact cast for this tale of power and might for right. Miles gives Brutus a nice balance between eloquence and strength. Pensive and fair-minded, Brutus is a reluctant leader driven by a firm resolve to do what’s best for Rome, no matter what the cost—even to herself. Vallecchi Williams tempers Cassius’s blunt boldness with a sharp mind and an intuitive insight into men’s hearts. Her finger on the pulse of public sentiment, her plans go well beyond mere schemes and plots. And her love and friendship with Brutus reveal a gentler, emotional side; great chemistry between Miles’ mild-mannered Brutus and Vallecchi Williams’ fiery Cassius.

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Foreground: Maddalena Vallecchi Williams & Felix Beauchamp; Background: Megan Miles in Caesar—photo art by Joseph Hammond

Leon gives a great turn in two very different roles: the proud, vain and tyrannical Caesar; and Brutus’s fiercely loyal and loving wife Portia, where she plays a lovely two-hander in which Portia, beside herself with worry, begs to know what ails Brutus. Beauchamp also does a marvelous job with multiple roles: as the eerily quiet, menacing Casca; Brutus’s wide-eyed serving boy; Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, who relays a dream of dark portents; and the sturdy young Octavius. Kashani does a great job with the many sides of Antony; ready to spill blood after he’s spilled tears over Caesar’s corpse, he proves himself to be a master manipulator of mob mentality during his sly spin on the conspirators during the funeral speech, as well as a fine warrior—and is greatly underestimated by his enemies.

With shouts to the design team for creating the minimalist, evocative environment and atmosphere: Tessa Hallett (set), Nikolas Nikita (costumes) and Elizabeth Elliott (lighting).

Power, plots and passion in the compelling, intimate and deftly performed Caesar.

Caesar continues at Kensington Hall till May 28; full schedule and advance tix available online. Advance booking strongly recommended; it’s an intimate venue with limited seating and a very strong company.

You can keep up with Wolf Manor Theatre collective on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Looking to support great local indie theatre? Please consider supporting the company’s Fund What You Can campaign.

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Toronto Fringe: Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous & thought-provoking Persephone

persephone 2A well-known myth gets a new, feminist-inspired perspective at this year’s Toronto Fringe in Pencil Kit Productions’ lush, multi-disciplinary staging of Persephone. Directed by Claren Grosz and created collectively by the company, the show is currently running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

In this version of Persephone’s journey to the Underworld, we are shown several sides of the story – and everyone seems to have a different version. Love-struck Hades (Christopher Sawchyn) makes a request to Zeus (Felix Beauchamp) to arrange a marriage with his daughter Persephone (Sydney Herauf), but clearly no one checked in with her mother Demeter (Jacklyn Francis). Beside herself with worry as she searches for her beloved daughter, Demeter casts the world into winter in protest in an attempt to force Zeus’s hand and get Persephone back. In the end, though, it is Persephone who decides and enacts the terms of her release.

Using movement and dance that is both playful and erotic, as well as music and song – and with a delightful comedic introduction to the tale – the ensemble does a remarkable job with the storytelling. Herauf gives us a fulsome, well-rounded performance as Persephone; going from precocious, curious child to a strong-willed teen who questions authority, to a young woman discovering her own desires and choices as she navigates the decisions that were made for her. Sawchyn is imperious and seductive as Hades; and despite his commanding personality, he’s far more sensitive and accommodating than one would think. A lonely god, he seems to really want to get to know Persephone and cares about her welfare and happiness. This in contrast to Beauchamp’s cocky Zeus, who is decidedly more old-school patriarchy; with a laissez-faire attitude toward fatherhood, his power is absolute – but despite his arrogance, he’s not stupid and knows he must make a compromise with Demeter or the people will perish in the harsh conditions of her imposed winter. Francis is lovely, majestic and nurturing as Demeter (aka Mother Nature); in today’s terms, her parenting style would be called “helicopter,” and her fear for her daughter’s safety, while well-founded, is overly controlling at times. Afraid to let her daughter go and ferocious in her pursuit to get her back – you don’t wanna mess with Mother Nature.

Really nice work from the members of the chorus, who portray multiple characters, including trees and a river. Laura Katherine Hayes give a great turn as Persephone’s irreverent, playful friend and lover Diana; and Augusto Bitter and Fiona Haque do a lovely re-enactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale. Keshia Palm injects some fabulous sass; and Sheree Spencer brings mystery and some beautiful violin music.

With shouts to the design team: Sim Suzer (costume) and Kennedy Brooks (lighting) for their evocative work on this production.

Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous and thought-provoking Persephone.

Persephone continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 9. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.